Driving California State Route 1: The Pacific Coast Highway

Long before today’s modern highways intertwined through the entire country, the term highway referred to long roads made for long distance driving. The best known of these roads is Route 66, which originally traversed from Chicago to Santa Monica beach. Then, it was the easiest way to travel if you were looking to move west. Today, it’s traveled end to end only by curious folks looking to get in touch with history.

It’s a little different if you’re already on the west coast and your identity was partially shaped by the beautiful, expansive landscapes of California. If this is you, you’re more likely to romanticize about California State Route 1, otherwise known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. The highway runs north to south through most of the California coastline. At times, the road is directly next to the water, sometimes it’s hidden among the coastal forests, and others it edges over the eroding coastline cliffs. PCH is at times relaxing and others exciting or downright scary, but it’s always fun, beautiful, and memorable.

As a kid, my beach experiences were limited to Santa Monica and Venice; the latter of which still ranks high due to its grit. PCH was the street used by rich people who lived by the water. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I began to understand the freedom PCH represented.

Life in Los Angeles has two phases: life before a car and the life you live after getting a car. It was then I realized the Pacific Coast Highway was a beautiful open road carefully carved into the California coastline. It stood as a way for Californians to show off the beauty of the state without arrogantly making that statement—though many of us still do.

We found ourselves in Santa Cruz earlier this year and had faced so much traffic going to northern California that I knew the 101 was not the way I wanted to drive home. Instead, we jumped on California 1 in Monterey Bay.

The road turns inward following the natural curve of the bay. It gains altitude as you travel under the shelter of trees. This gain only only becomes noticeable when you sporadically leave the canopy to find yourself on the edge of a cliff looking onto the infiniteness of the ocean.

The road winds through the cliffside for miles. It’s only wide enough for one lane in and one lane out through hairpin turns. Heading south, your right-side passengers feel inches away from the precipice.

The majesty of this highway is most evident as you reach Big Sur high above the shore. In areas where the cliff cuts in too deep, you drive over massive concrete bridges with arcs that reach all he way to the bottom. The bridges make for amazing and nerve-testing views.

As we were on our descent, we hit an unexpected red light where construction or debris clean-up forced a single lane area with lights at the two distant ends, about one mile apart. We sat waiting at the red light as cars appeared from the curve only as they approached our light. They were hidden most of the way up.

Our light turned green. We could not see if there were any cars left coming up and all we could do was trust the timing of the light. We hit the gas and entered the curve, moving slowly with the cliff face to our left, and a drop on our right. At the other end, a new line of cars had formed waiting for all of us to pass through. Just ahead of that line, a tunnel and the final stretch out of Los Padres National Forest.

We left the height and trees behind and were now on a new section of PCH. The road became a straightaway with easy slopes and green all around. Cattle grazed on both sides of the highway in clear view of the Pacific Ocean. When the marketing minds behind the happy California cows campaign came up with the idea, they must’ve been thinking of this area.

You continue this way for miles until you reach a crowded overlook. People stop and gather to look out onto a beach elephant seals have called home for years: San Simeon. We wanted to pull over but it was frankly too crowded. Instead we drove to the next stopping point just ahead at Vista Point. We relaxed here for a while enjoying the waves, listening to the combined sounds of the wind and the sea, and read up on the nature preserve. I was also able to walk along the shore just off-trail, may or may not have walked over a “Do Not Cross” rope, and got close enough to snap a shot of two elephant seals lounging around separated from the noise of the crowds.

We stopped for an early dinner in San Simeon. We knew then we would have to speed up the remainder of our trip home. The next day would bring a new week and we all had work or school to attend. The sun began to set in the late evening. The opportunity to join the 101 came quickly and we jumped without hesitation. The last leg of PCH would have to wait for another day but on this June day, to cap a weekend getaway, we conquered the northern leg of the majestic Pacific Coast Highway.

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